At the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival

When we go out to review a restaurant or an event, always the most important of our criteria is to assess what its objectives are and then to evaluate just how well it lives up to it. As the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival entered its third decade this year, the board of directors made it clear they were reclaiming ownership of the festival and returning to the roots on which the longtime event was founded: showcasing Texas wine and food; using predominantly local and regional cooking talent as the attractions; and capitalizing on very inviting venues in Austin and the surrounding Hill Country. After dropping in to several events and sending Chronicle food staffers to many others, I'm happy to report that the 2006 festival was exactly as advertised: a hometown show to make Austin proud. Kudos to festival president Harvey Giblin, manager Dawn Orsak, and event and wine coordinators Erika White and Sue Carter, plus all the hardworking board and committee members on a job well done. The Home on the Range party at the TDS game ranch was big fun, as always. With an excellent Western swing soundtrack provided by the trio Back at the Ranch, guests noshed on barbecue while sipping wine, beer, tequila, and mezcal. Some outstanding bites: grilled quail legs on creamy garlic grits from Bonnell's in Ft. Worth; barbecued shrimp on black bean and corn salsa from Blue Smoke in New York; a barbecue sampler plate from Big Oak Barbecue in Buda; a brownie sundae with caramel sauce from Rather Sweet in Fredericksburg; and slices of buttermilk delight and strawberry rhubarb pies from Royer's in Round Top... Visiting Latin chefs presented phenomenal food to appreciative guests at the four Central Market cooking classes, and the Sabor Latino cooking demonstrations by local chefs and wine seminars on the patio attracted a small crowd that swelled to hundreds when Grupo Fantasma rocked the park... Evidently, California chef and longtime sustainable agriculture advocate John Ash achieved rock star status at the crowded Farm to Table event, while Austin's own singer-songwriter Trish Murphy not only prepared food to be served at one of the booths, she also performed a two-hour set and gave away CDs. Talk about full-service talent!... The Stars Across Texas grand tasting was the most pleasant big scramble the festival has put on in years. A bigger room with fewer people and more air conditioning was a huge improvement. The reduced traffic flow made it possible for chefs and winemakers to actually interact with guests instead of just flinging food and wine at a hot, surging horde. Memorable bites: perfect, eggshell-sized meringue cups of tart lemon curd from Wink; fried peach pies and root beer floats from the Texas Culinary Academy pastry department; Katherine Clapner's unusual snow cone made with chicha morada, purple Peruvian corn syrup; the signature turtle soup from Brennan's of Houston; lobster and truffle pot pie from Moonshine; smoked buffalo chili Frito pie from Bonnell's; luscious tres leches cake from La Duni in Dallas; cold poached shrimp on a bed of tomato sorbet from Aquarelle; a refreshing palate cleanser of Texas Rio Star grapefruit sorbet with Campari from Teo's. Stars news bits: Little Texas Bistro chef/owner Paul Petersen has accepted the executive chef position at the Gage Hotel in Marathon; Driskill pastry chef Mark Chapman decorated his table with a lovely wedding cake and a reproduction of the UT Tower and told us the 1886 Bakery has sold more than 100 wedding cakes in the past year; visiting chefs Kenny Callahan, John Ash, and Sue Torres dropped in to both TCA and ACC to assist and supervise the student chefs who were preparing their dishes... Texas wines showed remarkably well in blind tastings against wines from around the world, and all the Saturday seminars having to do with women and wine sold out going away. Ask one of the women who attended Leslie Sbrocco's seminar at the Womack Gallery to teach you the Australian drinking game they learned... California winemaker Kate MacMurray was so charming and absolutely thrilled to be here presenting her own handiwork paired with her father's classic film noir turn in Double Indemnity. Recruiting the Alamo Drafthouse as a festival venue was a great idea that will hopefully become a regular feature. MacMurray said she'd love to come back, and she has a long list of film suggestions... From all reports, moving the Sunday Fair to Georgetown was another good idea this year, with everything from improved highway access and better parking facilities to better supplies of food and wine samples being cited as points in its favor.

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